May 24th, 2011
01:27 PM ET

Could I have PTSD from being bullied?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Tuesdays, it's Dr. Charles Raison, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University, and an expert in the mind-body connection for health.

Asked by Sue from Canada

I have been harassed for many years at work due to the fact I am considered a disabled person. I can't do some jobs because I don't have the strength or endurance. People taunted me, saying stuff like saying I was a hypochondriac. They made me do work I couldn't physically do, and I'm harassed almost on a daily basis. During this time, I developed major depression, and last year I needed time off from work because of it. I feel I have some signs of PTSD because I can't work in certain areas of the plant I work in.

I started cutting two years ago to deal with the stress and getting suicidal thoughts, which I still deal with at this time. I am getting counseling, and I am taking medication for my depression and my ADHD. I think of the teenagers who have killed themselves because of bullying, and I understand how they felt. That is how I feel. I now work more in an area where people treat me better, but I can't forget the fact that some of my co-workers drove me to have suicidal thoughts and cutting. I have been with this company for 26 years. I was told to forget about it since they are treating me better, but I just can't get past the hell they put me through day in and day out. Could I have PTSD or complex PTSD?

Expert answer

Dear Sue,

I feel for what you went through. I'm glad you are in a better place now, but I also completely understand how hard it can be to let go of old hurts, even when holding onto them damages us far more than the people who caused us the pain.

I was the victim of a terrible bully when I was a small child, and the effects of this experience have never completely left me. To this day, I overreact whenever anyone tries to bully me in even the subtlest ways, because I was so terrorized as a child. And I'm not the only one who suffered.

Recently, I saw an old friend from Germany who lived in our town as an exchange student 35 years ago and who had been repeatedly beaten up by the same bully for being a little bit different. I hadn't seen my old German buddy in 20 years, and the first thing he wanted to tell me was how much he still hated the bully after all these years.

When dealing with a bullying situation, there are two essential things to be done. You've already accomplished the first of these, which is to make the bullying stop - either by removing yourself or by getting the bully or bullies removed.

The second step is more difficult, and that involves getting over the experience emotionally, either by finding the strength to understand and in some way forgive the bully (or bullies) or by getting the experience into a place in your mind and heart where it no longer interferes with your daily life.

Not knowing you, I can't make specific recommendations for how to proceed in regards to the second step, but let me make a couple of general comments.

First, it is very hard to forgive people without the offenders recognizing their wrongdoing, which is often not possible. In my experience, some type of spiritual practice is often the best way to begin the hard task of forgiving, not so much for the other person but for your own peace of mind.

Second, I am glad you are in counseling. I strongly recommend that you focus specifically on the bullying situation in your therapeutic work, even if it means going over and over things in detail. I have used this approach very successfully in adults who were experiencing PTSD symptoms as a result of bullying.

Finally, although it is difficult, try not to beat yourself up over the fact that others have bullied you. Recognize that the shame induced by bullying is one of the most potent mental poisons a human can swallow, so don't be hard on yourself about the fact that you are struggling with this issue.

My German buddy has led armed convoys into Afghanistan but still wrestles with rage and terror over a bully from the schoolyard days. You are not alone in your struggle.

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